Over the course of a year, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has made headlines (and alarmed many working scientists) with a number of moves, from rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations to barring scientists who conduct research with EPA funding from serving as agency advisers. This week, he even distributed talking points to agency staffers that — in direct opposition to current scientific thinking — deliberately downplay humanity’s role in heating up the planet.
But for many scientists, perhaps the most worrying aspect of Pruitt’s leadership at the EPA is his campaign for greater “transparency” in scientific research — a mission typified by his recent plan to limit the types of studies that can be used to inform agency regulations to only those using publicly available data. The idea behind Pruitt’s proposal — which he detailed in an interview last week with conservative news site The Daily Caller — has long been supported by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Lamar Smith. The Texas Republican’s failed HONEST Act, formerly known as the Secret Science Reform Act, sought the same release of data, but with the added requirement that all studies be reproducible as well.
Honesty and transparency are, of course, desirable ideas, and Pruitt’s supporters have praised his efforts to “bring sound science to the EPA.” But the details of his plan, critics say, suggest that Pruitt’s real goal is to undermine current and future environmental regulation, much of which is informed by studies conducted and published decades ago.
One such study, published in 1993, analyzed data on more than 8,000 adults across six U.S. cities to illustrate a link between air pollution and premature deaths. The findings were largely influential in the formation of federal air quality standards, but as is the case with most public health studies, which rely heavily on the personal — and private — health information of individual participants, the researchers were bound by confidentially rules. Turning over the raw data in this case, if it still exists, would require extensive resources to redact any information that could be used to identify subjects.
Hindering work like this would leave regulators with an inevitably smaller body of research to consider when making public health and environmental policy, critics say. And coupled with Pruitt’s documented interest in befriending industrial polluters, the new policy trajectory has both researchers and public health experts sounding alarms. Speaking to The New York Times this week, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health under President Barack Obama, called Pruitt’s plan “weaponized transparency.”
Meanwhile, Pruitt’s own track record on this front is telling for its irony: In the year he assumed his post as the EPA’s 14th leader, the agency faced a record number of lawsuits for failing to adequately respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Also in the news:
• On April 16, NASA plans to launch a satellite that will train its gaze on the nearest stars outside the solar system. The object? So-called exoplanets: planets in our own galaxy that might be capable of supporting life. The satellite, with the friendly name TESS (for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), is to spend at least two years scanning the entire sky for stars no more than 300 light-years from Earth, looking for dips in light that signal planets passing in front of them. Ground-based telescopes can then observe these planets more closely to see if they have conditions that might support life. TESS replaces NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which discovered 4,000 potential exoplanets in just one patch of the Milky Way, but is fast running out of fuel. (New York Times)
• A study released this week found that Americans who eat out, especially at fast food and cafeteria-style restaurants, tend to carry higher body loads of phthalates — compounds used in plastics to make them more flexible — than those who dine at home. The analysis, published today in the journal Environmental International, found that phthalate levels were as much as 35 percent higher for adults who had dined out and up to 55 percent higher for teenagers, who are frequent consumers of fast food. Some items, such as cheeseburgers, were only associated with phthalate exposure if they were purchased in a restaurant. Phthalates, which are used in containers, packaging, and protective gloves, among other products, have been identified as endocrine-disruptors and research has linked them to a range of health issues. But because they tend to interfere with the production of male reproductive hormones — defining them as anti-androgenic — they are most notably considered a risk for male infertility. Researchers used a well-known database of more than 10,000 participants for their study; its results, they said, indicated that dining out may be an underestimated risk for phthalate exposure. (The Guardian).
• While cigarette advertising aimed at children has been restricted in the United States for two decades (remember the infamous Joe Camel?), e-cigarettes still enjoy few such limitations — and new research suggests that the fruit flavors, bright colors, and sometimes cartoon-themed packaging used by many e-cig makers are having a clear impact. Surveys of some 7,000 children between the ages 12 and 17 indicated that those who recalled being exposed to and/or responding positively to e-cigarette advertisements were also more open to trying them than children who said they couldn’t recall the ads. The authors of the analysis, published online this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, came to a simple conclusion: “Our study reinforces that tobacco product marketing continues to be an important contributor to tobacco use among young people.” (Science News)
• For more than a decade, rumors spread of a tiny “alien” discovered in the northern Chilean town of La Noria. After the 6-inch skeleton, which came to be known as Ata, was featured in a documentary, scientists offered to analyze her DNA. The results, published last week in the journal Genome Research, confirmed suspicions that despite her unusual appearance, Ata was indeed human. Following the announcement of the finding, however, Chilean scientists condemned the study as unethical because of the way Ata’s body was obtained. While some are calling for the study to be retracted, lead author Gary Nolan said he had no reason to believe the skeleton was obtained illegally and pointed out that the existence of Ata’s body was known to the Chilean government for 15 years, and no action was taken. (New York Times)
• Drone technology is giving researchers a chance to study animal migrations like never before. In 2015, a team of ecologists used drones to collect footage of caribou making their annual trek from Victoria Island to the Canadian mainland. Over a dozen hours of video, which was imported into a computer vision program that identified and followed each individual animal’s trajectory, revealed a complex web of social interactions among the herd — the kind of data that GPS tracking collars haven’t been able to provide. Among the researchers’ findings: caribou are more influenced by herd members in front of them than by those beside them, and calves are highly social and stay close to others while adult bulls tend to be more independent. The findings were published this week in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B. (National Geographic)
• And finally: A federal ban on a common paint stripping chemical is on hold, despite knowledge of its link to dozens of deaths spanning as far back as the 1940s. When used indoors, toxic fumes from methylene chloride — a colorless, sweet-smelling liquid — build up and can cause those exposed to knock out and suffocate. The chemical can also trigger heart attacks in people with certain conditions and has been linked to chronic health problems for those who survive. Despite all this, industry groups have pushed for improving labelling, rather than pulling the product from store shelves. And now, it seems the EPA is listening: In December, the agency changed the designation of the chemical from “Proposed Rule” to “Long-Term Action,” indicating the determination that more time is needed to analyze the risks. (CBS News)